Ten years of the iPhone

First generation Apple iPhoneApparently, it is now ten years since Steve Jobs stood up on stage and announced the worst kept secret of the decade: that Apple was about to enter the smartphone market, with a device that would become known as the iPhone.

That Apple was working on a mobile phone was widely reported and speculated on, but the precise details were kept under wraps, and thus the firm still managed to surprise everyone with the device that Jobs finally showed off on stage.

It is interesting now to note that at the time there was considerable debate over whether the iPhone would be a success for Apple or not. I can recall being in two minds about this, because the first iPhone was something of a brick compared with contemporary candybar smartphones, and it supported only 2G cellular communications, meaning that data access was painfully slow even by mobile standards.

However, I was also well aware of the “Apple effect”, which meant that almost anything the company produced was eagerly snapped up by adoring Apple fans.

But there were several significant new capabilities that Apple brought to the market with the original iPhone; it was the first with a capacitive touchscreen and a user interface designed to make the best use of it, and it was the first to enable gesture-based controls, such as pinch-to-zoom to make small text readable in the Safari browser.

In my opinion, it was the user interface that made the iPhone a success. Contemporary smartphones required the user to navigate on-screen options using a keypad, or with a crude stylus that Windows Mobile forced on users because its user interface was modelled on that of desktop Windows and the on-screen controls were often tiny and difficult to accurately reach.

This meant that, despite the glaring lack of support for 3G wireless, the relatively high cost of the device, and its chunky size, the iPhone was an attractive option for those who wanted a smartphone but didn’t want to have to do a PhD in Computer Science before they could operate it.

With later models, Apple fixed the lack of 3G support and delivered another crucial innovation in the shape of the App Store, enabling users to purchase and download new applications direct to their device at the touch of a button. In contrast, users of other smartphones typically had to install an app by downloading them to a PC before syncing it to their mobile device and running an installer.

This masterstroke benefited Apple, its users, and developers. Users got a trusted source for applications, developers got a pre-built store to showcase their wares, and Apple got to make revenue from every app sale. Many users now cite the broad range of apps as their main reason for choosing an iPhone.

To summarise, Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, but it was first with many of the features that many users now consider to be an indispensable part of the smartphone experience. The iPhone has shaped the smartphone market to such an extent that it is fair to say it gave the industry a kick up the backside, and led to the mobile world we see today.

My original review of the first iPhone, from IT Week in December of 2007 (content now moved to Computing) when the device finally made it to these shores , can still be read here.